what relationship and what therapy?


Forced migration and self-harm: what is the relationship?

It has been observed that complex and traumatic events in an individual’s life, such as the experience of forced migration, can be linked to certain self-harming behaviors (Gratz, 2006).

The process of adaptation, assimilation and integration into a new cultural context can indeed become the cause of generalized and pervasive traumas, which can be defined as “everyday microtraumas” (Risso and Boeker, 2000 ).

This kind of micro-trauma stems from a series of difficulties to which the migrant is subjected: the loss of the evidence of daily experience, continually traversed by incomprehensible elements which must be constantly subjected to a work of interpretation; the rupture of the founding link with the origins which becomes the cause of a permanent questioning; the need for incessant work to rebuild their identity, since they no longer have a body-group to constitute themselves.

All of this often comes on top of previous traumatic experiences while traveling to the host country.

When the traumatic value of these events exceeds the individual’s ability to cope with pain, the body can become a theater of suffering and an object of attack.

The feeling of not being able to exist in any psychic or cultural “form” can generate a feeling of intolerable inadequacy and produce a strong self-hatred which can manifest itself in devastating ways on the body, sometimes even inflicting pain on oneself, precisely to try to find a place for this violent hatred felt towards oneself (De Micco, 2019).

The risk of self-harm can be exacerbated by three risk factors:

  • Upset belonging (loneliness; lack of supportive relationships)
  • Charge perception (belief that one is so flawed that one exerts responsibility over others; affectively charged ideation of self-hatred)
  • Learned capacity (prolonged exposure to negative events and physically and/or psychologically painful experiences) (Joiner, 2005).

Feelings of non-belonging, isolation, helplessness, worthlessness, guilt and shame, included in the three aforementioned variables, are common to almost all experiences of forced migration, so it becomes easy to understand how the risk of committing acts of self-harm becomes significantly more pronounced.

Self-harm, a high-risk target: unaccompanied foreign minors

As revealed in the literature on the subject, self-harm following migratory events seems to be a more observable behavior in adolescence.

Uprooting, abandonment of the social and cultural context of belonging, travel and arrival in a new country, often faced without the support and emotional support of family members, can be even more difficult stressors. to manage for adolescents who simultaneously face physical, cognitive and socio-emotional changes, including the development of autonomy and identity.

Because of these difficulties, the body can become a real “battlefield”, a means of expressing the pain and anguish experienced.

In this case, the self-inflicted pain is a way of escaping the suffering or of diluting it, in a kind of “stunner” which makes it possible to stop thinking of something else.

In other words, the wound allows momentary relief, guaranteeing a period of “pause” (Valastro, Cerutti and Flotta, 2014).

Forced migration and self-harm: conclusions

Self-harm as a possible outcome of forced migration is a phenomenon that has not yet been well studied, but where exploration reveals a worrying incidence.

Moreover, in the literature, this behavior is often explored by superimposing it on suicide.

The juxtaposition of these manifestations could cause a distortion in their understanding, since in one case the desire is to end one’s own life, while in the other the need is to continue to exist and to recover a lost meaning (Gargiulo, Tessitore, Le Grottaglie, Margherita, 2020).

In the interpretation of this phenomenon, it is also necessary to broaden the gaze, considering not only the psychopathological dimension, but also the anthropological and cultural ones.

Indeed, it can happen that the malaise takes forms that are difficult to apprehend since the Western gaze does not know how to understand it, being unable to rely on universal or culturally shared ways of manifesting it or reading it (De Micco, 2019).

The references:

De Micco V. (2019), Fuori luogo. TempoFuori. L’esperienza dei minori unaccompanied migranti tra sguardo antropologico ed ascolto analitico, Adolescenza e Psicoanalisi, n. 1, Magi ed. Roma.

Gargiulo A., Tessitore F., Le Grottaglie F., Margherita G. (2020), Self-harming behaviors of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe: A systematic review, International Journal of Psychology, 2020, DOI: 10.1002/ijop.12697

Gratz KL (2006), Risk Factors for Deliberate Self-Harm in Female College Students: The Role and Interplay of Child Abuse, Emotional Inexpressiveness, and Affect Intensity/Reactivity, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76, 238-250.

Joiner T. (2005), Why People Die by Suicide, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, London.

Risso M., Boeker W. (2000), Sortilegio e delirio. Psicopatologia delle migrazioni in prospettiva transculturale, Lanternani V., De Micco V., Cardamone G. (a cura di), Liguori, Naples.

Valastro, Cerutti R., Flotta S. (2014), Autolesività non suicidaria (ANS) nei minori stranieri non avecati, Infanzia e adolescenza, 13.2, 2014.

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